MONTPELIER — A number of large retailers, including Walmart and Shaw’s, have joined up for the state’s hazard pay program for frontline employees who worked through the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said Tuesday.
The state Agency of Human Services’ Department of Vermont Health Access has extended the program to Wednesday at 12 p.m. to allow retailers to complete the application process, Smith said during Tuesday’s COVID-19 briefing.
Through the law, workers in specified professions earning less than $25 per hour are eligible for grant funds — $1,200 for part-time employees as defined in the law, and $2,000 for full-time workers. The money comes from the federal CARES Act and is a “pass-through” for employers.
Smith said that he learned of Walmart’s application on Tuesday morning, shortly before the 11 a.m. COVID briefing. Among other large retailers with multiple outlets in Vermont, Smith said Shaw’s, Walgreens, CVS, Costco and Lowe’s had applied, and that the state was still waiting on a decision by Home Depot.
Gov. Phil Scott’s administration had been in contact with Walmart after members of the state Senate, including Sens. Tim Ashe, Chris Pearson and Michael Sirotkin, called out Walmart and other retailers for not taking part in the program.
Ashe said Tuesday that he was happy for the employees, who will “now receive a long overdue thank you from the people of Vermont.”
“Many of our our essential workers put their health at risk to meet our basic needs in the early days of COVID. They don’t get paid a lot, and their jobs aren’t glamorous, but what they do is honorable and valuable,” Ashe said. “We should be proud to have these frontline workers as our friends and neighbors.”
But Ashe is also concerned that employers including Home Depot, Dollar General and Aldi had yet to apply.
“It is inexplicable and cruel,” he said. “For the sake of their loyal employees we are hoping the corporate HQ at these companies steps up for their people who were in the trenches in the first brutal days of COVID by applying before [Wednesday’s] deadline.”
Walmart has six stores in Vermont, including one in Bennington, and outlets in nearby Hinsdale, N.H., and North Adams, Mass.
Smith said the application deadline was extended until 12 p.m. Wednesday to give participants more time to obtain internal corporate approvals and complete the application.
The Vermont Legislature chose to have employers rather than employees apply for the benefit, in order to make the program easier to operate. But that meant that workers are dependent upon their employers’ participation to obtain the benefit.
Bentonville, Arkansas.-based Walmart had earlier said it had provided cash bonuses of its own to frontline workers who staffed its aisles in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, and did not need the federal dollars.
The hazard pay program was launched in June with $30.5 million in federal coronavirus funds, and was largely dedicated to healthcare workers. Another $20 million was added to the program in the fiscal 2021 budget to include retailers, food service workers, child care workers, pharmacists and other frontline positions not addressed in the original bill.
The Legislative Joint Fiscal Committee added another $8 million two weeks ago, in a reallocation of unspent CARES Act funds.
Delia Garcia, senior director of communications for Walmart, made the following statement Tuesday night.
“After further discussions with local and state officials, we’re pleased to hear there was sufficient funding to provide bonuses to all small and medium sized businesses in Vermont and that there are remaining funds for employees of larger companies,” she said. “We’ve listened to our associates and know they will appreciate receiving the one-time funding through the Vermont Frontline Employees Hazard Pay Grant Program. This is on top of the more than $1 billion we’ve invested in our associates nationwide with three special cash bonuses and our quarterly incentive program.”